Joshua Shepherd (Carleton University)

Today we publish the answers of Dr Joshua Shepherd. Dr Shepherd is Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department of Carleton University. He has published widely on several aspects of action and agency including their connections with consciousness, control, free will, automatic and zombie action, and mental actions like deciding. His book Consciousness and Moral Status is in the making and he is also Principal Investigator of the ERC project ‘Rethinking Conscious Agency’. Enjoy.


1. What are you working on at the moment?


In the summer of 2018 I will begin a five year project called ‘Rethinking Conscious Agency,’ funded by the European Research Council, and hosted at the University of Barcelona. As part of this project, I have a number of articles planned on different aspects of the psychological architecture underpinning consciousness, agency, and their relationships. One part of this that seems to be coming together is a book tentatively titled The Shape of Agency. In it, I try to give accounts of control over behavior, non-deviant causation, the nature of agency, the nature of skill, and the places of knowledge and practical reasoning in all this.


2. What is your 5-15 sentence account of what an action is?


I’m a causalist, and my view is in line with causalists like Goldman, Brand, Mele, and Bratman. In accounting for action, my emphasis is on control over behavior. So, in a 2014 paper called ‘The contours of control’ (in Philosophical Studies), I offer an account of control. The rough idea is that to possess control is to possess an ability to flexibly and repeatedly bring one’s behavior to match the content of relevant motivational states (like intentions), across sufficiently wide sets of circumstances. And then to exercise the control that one possesses is to behave in a particular case via causal pathways that would be those normally operative in the good cases, where ‘would be’ is indexed to wide sets of counterfactual circumstances. With such an account in hand, one can begin to talk of intentional action – to act intentionally is to exercise a sufficient degree of control over one’s behavior in executing some relevant motivational state. As I say, that’s rough. It doesn’t address side-effects, or people who think there’s a good category ‘action’ that’s something distinct from ‘intentional action,’ among other things. The 2014 paper spells the rough idea out in more detail, and the in-progress book will expand upon that and hopefully clarify some bits of the account that have been nagging me.


3. In your view, what were the three most important recent developments in philosophy of action?


I’m not confident I can accurately name the most important developments. The field is impressively broad and rich, with connections between action, moral psychology, and ethics on one end, and between action, consciousness, mind, metaphysics and epistemology on another. And of course, there are cross-connections between items within these two clusters. For my part, here are three areas full of exciting recent work.


The first concerns work on the psychological architecture underlying action. This is an enormous area. Some of this focuses on attention (Wayne Wu), some focuses on decision making (Al Mele), some focuses on perception and its connection with knowledge of action (Thor Grünbaum). Some focuses on the interface between cognition and motor control (I’m thinking of important papers by Steve Butterfill and Corrado Sinigaglia, and by Myrto Mylopoulos and Elisabeth Pacherie). Some of this focuses on the structure of control, including work on automaticity, motor control, skill learning, conscious control, etc. – see Wayne Christensen or Ellen Fridland.


The second area surrounds the phenomenology (or sometimes the ‘awareness’) of action, its surprising complexity, and its implications for other philosophical debates. Lots of great philosophers have written in this area – Terence Horgan, Uriah Kriegel, Elisabeth Pacherie, Tim Bayne, Hong Yu Wong, and Oisin Deery come to mind.


The third area involves exploration of the epistemic issues in action, including action’s rational structure (Michael Thompson, Markos Valaris), the nature of knowledge-how (lots of people), of understanding (John Bengson), the role of knowledge (including knowledge-how, and sometimes self-knowledge) in accounts of action and skill (Carlotta Pavese, Lucy O’Brien, John Hyman, Jason Stanley and Timothy Williamson, Ernest Sosa).


4. What direction would you like to see the field go in?


I would like to see the increase of something that is happening a bit more lately, but which could happen much more, namely, conversation and cross-fertilization between people and ideas at different ends of various spectra – so, conversation between Anscombeians and Causalists (done by, e.g., Sarah Paul, John Schwenkler, Kieran Setiya), between the aforementioned who emphasize connections of action and epistemology, or psychological architecture, or phenomenology, and those who emphasize metaphysics (I haven’t named people in this group, and there are too many to name, but Maria Alvarez, Randy Clarke, Andrei Buckareff, Matt Soteriou, Constantine Sandis, Jesus Aguilar, Stephen Kearns, Markus Schlosser, Rowland Stout, Douglas Lavin, Helen Steward, and many others). I think cross-fertilization often leads to new insights, is intrinsically interesting, sometimes helps us avoid merely verbal disputes, and generates greater understanding of one’s colleagues.


2017 April 7

Many thanks to Dr Shepherd for his answers!